2021 | Bethesda Beat

Judge temporarily halts sale of Westwood Tower Apartments amid burial dispute

Bethesda African Cemetery Coalition has said graves are buried beneath parking lot

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A Montgomery County Circuit Court judge issued a temporary restraining order this week, blocking the sale of the Westwood Tower Apartments until at least the end of the month.

The restraining order came during a hearing Wednesday in a lawsuit brought by advocates and descendants of those buried in a historically Black cemetery in Bethesda, who have said a parcel of the cemetery is buried beneath the site.

In July, the Housing Opportunities Commission of Montgomery County approved a letter of intent for the sale of the property for $51 million to Bethesda-based investment management company Charger Ventures LLC. The sale was expected to be completed at the beginning of this month.

The Bethesda African Cemetery Coalition has argued for years that part of the Moses Macedonia African Cemetery is buried beneath the parking lot of Westwood Towers. The lawsuit states that hundreds of enslaved African Americans and the ancestors of the enslaved ancestors are buried there. The cemetery was paved over in the 1960s during the construction of the apartments, to create a parking lot and driveways.

Coalition members have rallied against the development of the site, with the hope that it will one day be memorialized. Montgomery County officials have researched the history of the cemetery but have said it isn’t clear whether gravesites are still there.

In its lawsuit, the cemetery coalition has cited a 2017 report by the archeological contracting firm the Ottery Group, which states that “it is improbable that the cemetery was completely effaced; nor is there evidence that the cemetery was formally moved” during development. The report goes on to state that burials are likely intact and that no additional ground disturbances should take place on the site.

The plaintiffs have alleged in the suit that the Housing Opportunities Commission did not follow a state law, which requires anyone selling a cemetery property for another purpose to obtain a court judgment. The law states that a court may order that proceeds from the sale be used to pay for any expenses related to the removal or reburying of remains, or the purchase of burial lots elsewhere.

On Wednesday, Circuit Court Judge Karla Smith issued a temporary restraining order in the case until Sept. 27, when a hearing on a preliminary injunction will take place, according to court records.

Christina Autin, a spokeswoman for the Housing Opportunities Commission, wrote in an email to Bethesda Beat that the commission “has no comment at this time.”

Curtis Boykin, an attorney representing the commission, did not respond to two voicemails seeking comment.

Steven Lieberman, an attorney who represents the plaintiffs, told Bethesda Beat on Thursday that the temporary restraining order means that the sale to Charger Ventures can’t happen before Sept. 27.

Lieberman said that Smith based her ruling during Wednesday’s hearing on burial records, death certificates, historical studies and surveys of the land. He said that Smith concluded that the property was a burial ground for freed slaves and their descendants, based on the evidence the plaintiffs presented in court.

If the court declines to grant an injunction Sept. 27, the sale can go forward, Lieberman said. But if an injunction is granted, the sale can’t happen until the lawsuit is resolved.

Dan Schere can be reached at daniel.schere@bethesdamagazine.com